These comments are relative in part to these stories' status as Hugo Nominees. In fact only one of the entire set is weak, and even that one (Resnick's "Article of Faith") isn't dreadful. So it's a good set of nominees, but not a perfect set, because better stories (a few) didn't make the list. (But of course that always happens.) So anyway I'm going to complain some, even with the stories I like.
* "The Erdmann Nexus" by Nancy Kress (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2008)
"The Erdmann Nexus" seems a bit old-fashioned: almost explicitly channeling Theodore Sturgeon. Indeed elsewhere I called it, a bit meanly, "warmed-over Sturgeon". But mean or not, read "To Marry Medusa" and "The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff", let's say, then read "The Erdmann Nexus". For all that both Sturgeon stories marry moments, whole sequences, of utter brilliance with some real disappointing elements, there's just something special about them that isn't present here. Anyway, Henry Erdmann is an aging physicist living in a nursing home, who is scared by brief strokelike incidents -- but no brain damage is involved, and eventually there are apparent links to the memories of other residents of the home. And soon he learns that many of his fellow residents are indeed having similar episodes. The resolution -- signaled from the beginning -- is not surprising: elderly people are evolving into a higher consciousness. Kress does take this familiar idea in a slightly unexpected direction at the end -- and there is a subplot involving a young attendant and her abusive husband that I found involving -- but there’s no denying that not much really new is going on here.
So: what's good: slightly unexpected ending. (But even so, one that didn't thrill me.) And an interesting subplot that alas wasn't enough of the story. What's bad -- not enough here new. A certain inevitability of the working out of things.
* "The Political Prisoner" by Charles Coleman Finlay (F&SF Aug 2008)
My original review noted that "The Political Prisoner" violates Mundane Manifesto guidelines by positing a future interstellar human society tied together (at least to an extent) by FTL travel. (The review began by considering the Interzone Mundane SF issue.) Worse, it's set on a planet not terribly advanced technologically (in some ways) from the 20th Century. There’s no denying such a future isn’t terribly plausible. But really this is an artificial construction -- a stage set -- for examining its central idea (and for telling a story). "The Political Prisoner" is a sequel to "The Political Officer", and like that story it draws to some extent on Soviet history for its plot and situation. The title character in both stories is Maxim Nikomedes, an internal spy for one branch of the authoritarian government of the planet Jesusalem -- that is, a man who spies on other factions of the government. Here he is swept up in political turnover and sent to a work camp. The main SFnal element here is that the work camps, instead of being in Siberia, are instead terraforming camps. But the heart of the story is the depiction of Nikomedes -- not a nice man, but among even worse men, so queasily sympathetic.
What's good here -- mainly the portrait of Nikomedes, and the fairly plausible situation he ends up in, and its bitterly inevitable working out. What's bad -- well, as I hint at above, there's not much SFnally exciting going on. There really is fairly little point in the story being SF at all. This is very well done stuff, but for an SF (or Fantasy) award, I want to have been thrilled by the central idea. (Or, alternately, the story could be so brilliant in other ways that that was less important ... but that sets the bar for brilliance a lot higher.)
* "The Tear" by Ian McDonald (Galactic Empires)
My favorite story of the year is Ian McDonald’s "The Tear". Gardner Dozois’s introductory material suggested that it has sufficient ideas and plot for many writers to make a trilogy from. In fact, one could argue that that is not entirely a strength of the story -- there would have been nothing wrong with a more leisurely treatment of some of the stories situations.
It’s set in a future McDonald has visited before, in which the Galaxy (and perhaps beyond) has been colonized by the Clade -- a vast variety of beings, all apparently based originally on Homo Sapiens, but with genetic modifications (and sometimes more extreme changes) to allow human life to spread to many different environments. On Ptey’s planet most people develop different "aspects": completely separate personalities that take over when needed. Ptey -- or the aspects he has become -- play a vital role in a crisis involving a curious group of beings fleeing an implacable enemy. The story keeps leaping to radically different futures, following different aspects of Ptey, through parallel love affairs, centuries long space journeys and battles, meetings with new branches of humanity -- it is fascinating, tragic, hopeful, imagination-stuffed, and powerful.
That short review doesn't really do the story justice. There is a well-depicted central love affair. There is some play with the nature of the "aspects" Ptey's people develop that I found fascinating. The depictions of the first visitors to Ptey's planet are really cool. The notion that all these very different beings are human is not at all new but nicely handled. There is a certain ambiguity as to how "good" the good guys necessarily are. (But application of one main rule -- "killing people is bad" -- does clarify things somewhat.) I just really loved the story.
What's good here -- well, what I've said. And it's as imaginatively stuffed a story as we usually see, though to be fair Rosenbaum and Doctorow's story (see below) is also pretty stuff that way. What's bad -- as I hinted, perhaps sometimes things are a bit rushed.
* "True Names" by Benjamin Rosenbaum & Cory Doctorow (Fast Forward 2)
The longest and arguably most ambitious of these entries is "True Names" by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum, nearly a novel according to Hugo rules. Perhaps this is a new entry in Doctorow’s ongoing series of riffs on famous SF stories. It concerns a far-future set of civilizations, mostly living in virtual environments. (That being the main nod to Vernor Vinge’s famous model -- otherwise there is less thematic connection to the predecessor stories than in Doctorow’s "I, Rowboat", "I, Robot", and "Anda’s Game", and for all I know, it's not really intended to be a Vinge riff.) One civilization is democratic, consisting of numerous entities vying for control, while the other is more or less totalitarian, ruled by a single strict program. The two polities battle across the Galaxy, not always noticing the threat of a third virtual environment, which seems lifeless but unstoppable. The plot involves computer program sex (sort of) and heroism, and questions about reality versus simulation -- at multiple levels -- and it’s fast-moving and interesting but for me it fell into the trap of excessive abstraction. I never quite believed in -- nor always understood -- what was going on. Nonetheless, it’s quite a thought provoking effort.
What's good here -- tons of imaginative ideas, lots of rigorous thought behind the setup. And an ironic and well thought out conclusion. What didn't work for me -- as I said, much of it simply seemed too abstract. Too much the authors telling us what we should think about what was going on rather than making us believe it. And, I'm not sure I understood everything. Which, I hasten to emphasize, is as much or more my fault than the authors'. Pace much discussion of Greg Egan's Incandescence, there are some stories that demand a lot of their readers (in different ways for different stories). And it's not a fair argument to say that the burden is entirely on the writers to make a story accessible to all readers, or even most. If a story is properly told in such a way that only a subset get it, that's fine, particularly if telling it differently would ruin it. Heck, that's the case for much of the SF genre when so-called "mundane" readers encounter us! That said, in all honesty, if the story didn't work for me, I can't vote it ahead of stories that did. But I respect those who did get it.
* "Truth" by Robert Reed (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2008)
Robert Reed’s "Truth" is explicitly a post-9/11 story. In a way that makes it as fresh a story as any on this list, if we accept "True Names" as a riff on an older story, and if we acknowledge that for all its extravagance and color "The Tear" is working out SFnal models that have bee around for quite some time. (Though in "Truth" we still see a dialogue with older SF -- something always present, seems to me, with Robert Reed, one of the field's great assimilators (compare Robert Silverberg) -- here I did think at times of James Blish’s VOR, for example.) The story is told by an investigator come to a secret US installation to take over the interrogation of a man help prisoner since just after 9/11, when he was found trying to smuggle nuclear material into the United States. He has certain remarkable characteristics and knowledge that have convinced some that his story is true : he is part of an invasion team from the future, trying to remake -- or punish -- history. Most of the novella is spent considering the question of the "truth" of what this prisoner is saying, and wondering how he or his cohorts might be affecting the decaying situation outside the installatio holding the prisoner.
What's good -- very intelligently written -- and well written, too. And philosophically and politically thought-provoking. What didn't quite work -- somehow I was never quite convinced. Which is an unfair point, doesn't tell you much, but it's what I felt. Perhaps its a reaction to the current economic crisis, but the situations displayed in "Truth" somehow seemed almost irrelevant to me. And, as Abigail Nussbaum said, while I was reading it I was quite impressed, somehow the story didn't quite stick with me.
Bottom line: in very different ways, two other Reed stories impressed me more than "Truth" last year, though neither got a Hugo nomination. (These are "Five Thrillers" and "Character Flu".) Good as "Truth" is, I feel it falls short of greatness.
To summarize the Novellas: it's a good ballot. There is one great story on it, and that will get my vote: "The Tear". The second best novella this year, Dean McLaughlin's "Tenbrook of Mars", from the July-August Analog, rather surprisingly failed to get nominated. I really think the gulf between those two stories and the four on the ballot is pretty wide. But those stories are actually quite good. (Other stories I'd have liked to see in consideration: Ian R. MacLeod's "The Hob Carpet", Holly Messinger's "End of the Line", David J. Schwartz's "The Sun Inside", Kelly Link's "The Surfer", Elizabeth Bear's "Overkill".)
My ballot: "The Tear", "Truth", "True Names", "The Political Prisoner", "The Erdmann Nexus". The middle three stories could probably be switched in order, in all honesty.